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Aero, the desktop to come
by Juan C. DĂĽrsteler [message nş 132]

The future of Windows is determined by Longhorn, the new operating system that Microsoft is preparing for 2005 that will imply, according to them, the “life immersion” of the customers in this new technology. We review what is known about it up to now.

AeroContactos.gif (210133 bytes)
My Contacts seen by Aero, Longhorn's user interface, Longhorn is the next Microsoft Windows® operating system. My contacts represents the social network as a graph
Source: Longhorn Alpha preview 3 by Paul Thurrot. Click on the image to enlarge it. 

Longhorn is the name of a mountain in the Washington state, USA, where some of Microsoft’s engineers go skiing. It has lent its name to the new operating system code name. According to Microsoft®, the new system will represent a breakthrough in terms of what exists today. Our interest in Longhorn has its roots in Aero, its new user interface. The question we ask ourselves is: will Microsoft seize the opportunity to overcome the desktop metaphor, creating something really innovative?.

The first sign of the appearance and possibilities of said system were revealed in the past Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) held between 6th and 8th of May, 2003 (all the slides are available). It’s interesting to read the comments of Will Poole Vice-president of Microsoft’s Windows Platform Groups about the goals of Longhorn regarding the user interface. 

In brief, Poole ends up saying that the major problem that Information Technology faces is not the economic crisis nor the fact that PCs aren’t purchased so frequently as before, but the sensation that we have achieved something good enough that discourages the spending of money and (painful, I’d say) effort of upgrading to a new platform. Poole’s answer is that all the manufacturers, Microsoft included, haven’t created technology that gives good reasons to the customer to invest time and money in buying new products.

The concept that Poole proposes is to create a technology favouring the so called “Life immersion”, of which Longhorn appears to be the exponent. In his own words the goal is to “embrace the human factors like we've never done before, to really understand how to make that emotional connection to our customers to address all of the product requirements […], making it just work, making it something that you can invite and live with every day in new and profound ways from a technological perspective […] to deliver that immersive experience”.

Nice hearing about that, but it doesn’t really clarifies what Life immersion means. The user interface, that in the end is what we are interested in, has received “Aero” as its code name and contains, apparently important technological advances. 

Paul Thurrot, in his interesting website “Supersite for Windows” makes an interesting summary of the latest news about Longhorn among which you can find an image gallery of Aero screenshots.

In the article we find the description of the low level graphics engine called DCE or Desktop Composition Engine, a new high performance graphic system that will allow for a higher realism in the graphics effects and tries to support the new hardware, like high density LCD screens (120 dpi instead of today’s 96 dpi) or advanced 3D accelerator cards, that will probably appear when Longhorn is launched.

This system is aimed at this “life immersion” but, for what we have seen, it is not based on breakthrough concepts, but in high end graphic effects already existing today. For example we will be able to reduce the size of a window and the contents will be shown smoothly decreasing without losing resolution. We will be able, even with a relatively modest (for 2005 standards) hardware, to have several windows moving and showing video or animation without flickering or interruptions.

In order to COPE with the heterogeneous levels of hardware available, Longhorn will have three levels of “user experience” according to the hardware in use.

  • The basic mode will be similar for compatibility reasons to the present Windows 2000.

  • Tier 1 will be usable by any hardware supported by Longhorn and will be a scaled down version of the user experience available in tier 2.

  • Tier 2 will be the actual immersion, that will seize the opportunities and possibilities of the most advanced hardware, with a “stunning user interface”, the desktop will be much more realistic, of high quality, friendlier to use and with new productivity solutions that will not be present in tier 1. 
AeroHyD.png (253908 bytes) AeroMusic.png (207450 bytes)
Aero's screen on Hardware and devices.
Source: image gallery by Paul Thurrot
Click on the image to enlarge it
Aero's Music Companion screen.
Source: image gallery by Paul Thurrot
Click on the image to enlarge it

Aero promises photo realistic graphics quality, as you can see in some of the images included in the graphic version of this issue, from Paul Thurrot’s gallery, but it also promises new productivity utilities. One in particular, whose link I owe to Alfons Cornella, is “My contacts” that substitutes the address book and shows the contacts as a connected graph with lines connecting the social network that the stored addresses conform to.

It’s still too early to know whether the expectation that Microsoft is raising around Aero as a rupture with what exists today will become a reality or not. This week the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2003 takes place where Longhorn will have a prominent role. Microsoft will deliver evaluation versions during November, still without Aero.

What appears to be clear is that the basic concept of the desktop will be the same, with windows taking the benefits of 2005 advanced graphic technology. It appears that some concepts of Information Visualisation could begin to make their way through Longhorn. We suspect, hence, that the answer to our initial question is no, the visual metaphor won't change.

It would be a pity if Microsoft misses this opportunity to offer real information visualisation to the users instead of simply offering special effects, although we users surely would be just as happy if Longhorn doesn’t crash so frequently as its elder brothers.

The promise of Information Visualisation is to make us more productive, simplifying our life in terms of knowledge acquisition. It has nothing to do with stunning the user with visual fireworks. 

Other interesting articles about this topic are:

Longhorn: Microsoft's Next Operating System by Jason Lopez in CIO Daily news briefings.
Longhorn: Microsoft's OS future
by Andrew Parsons in ZDNet

Links of this issue:

http://www.microsoft.com/whdc/winhec/pres03.mspx   WinHEC 2003 slides
http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/exec/poole/05-07winhec.asp   Comments of Will Poole about Longhorn
http://www.winsupersite.com   Windows Supersite by Paul Thurrot
http://www.winsupersite.com/showcase/longhorn_preview_2003.asp   Summary by Paul Thurrot
http://www.winsupersite.com/showcase/longhorn_aero.asp   Aero image gallery
http://www.ciotoday.com/perl/story/22409.html   Longhorn: Microsoft's Next Operating System by Jason Lopez
http://zdnet.com.com/2100-1104-958959.html   Longhorn: Microsoft's OS future by A. Parsons
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